For the first time in more than a decade, Los Angeles is on course to end the year with an increase in violent crime, police statistics show.
The city's overall violent crime total is up 7.6% so far this year compared with the same time in 2013, according to figures released by the Los Angeles Police Department this week. The increase has been driven by aggravated assaults — attacks involving weapons or serious injury — which have jumped nearly 20%. The number of reported rapes has also climbed 7% over last year.
Barring a dramatic reversal in the next few months, the city will break a remarkable run during which violent crime has fallen in each of the last 11 years. In that time, the level of violence dropped by two-thirds and pushed crime to lows not seen for decades, according to the LAPD statistics.
"After so many years of substantial declines, there is bound to be a bottoming out at some point," said Steve Soboroff, president of the Police Commission, which oversees the city's Police Department. "There are so many factors that influence crime. The question is how many factors can the police affect and are we doing everything we can to keep the city safe? I think our officers are doing a great job, but there is always more we can do."
Deputy Chief Rick Jacobs, who oversees the LAPD's crime tracking program, declined to speculate whether the city's run of violent crime declines would end this year. "Obviously, we make every effort we can to reduce all types of crime," he said.
The department has averaged about 1,500 violent crimes a month in 2014 and has recorded nearly 1,000 more offenses this year compared with last, leaving it a formidable amount of ground to make up in the next few months.
Police officials have attributed part of the increase to more accurate reporting of crimes by the department. LAPD officials said they made improvements following a Times investigation in August, which found the department significantly under-reported aggravated assaults as minor offenses.
More recently, Chief Charlie Beck has said a spike in serious domestic violence cases, which are counted as aggravated assaults, also is driving the increase.
Because assaults comprise nearly half of violent offenses, their increase has caused the total level of violent crime to rise.
Other categories of violent crime, however, continue to show declines. The 192 homicides committed so far this year are 15 fewer than the same period in 2013, while robberies are down nearly 4%, the LAPD statistics show.
And property-related crimes, which are far more common than violent ones, are on pace to end the year lower, meaning the city's overall crime total for 2014 likely will be lower than last year.
The long uninterrupted run of crime declines has served as a boon for elected officials, as well as Beck and his predecessor William Bratton. They cited the crime statistics to argue their policies were successful and to tout the city as one of the safest in the country.
In particular, Beck's success in reducing crime despite staffing shortages and cuts to the department's budget was a major factor in the commission's decision this summer to reappoint him to a second five-year term as chief.
Even as crime dropped in many U.S. cities, Los Angeles has stood out for its steady year-over-year declines. The 62% drop reported by the LAPD from 2003 to 2012 was by far the most dramatic reduction in violence among the country's 10 largest cities, FBI crime figures show. By comparison, New York's level of violence fell 11% in the same period and Chicago saw its numbers drop by about a third.
It remains to be seen whether the current increase in aggravated assaults and rapes are anomalies or precursors to a period of rising violence in Los Angeles. In a city that has become accustomed to falling crime, a prolonged upturn would pose challenges for LAPD and city leaders.
Jay Wachtel, a criminal justice professor at Cal State Fullerton, said more time is needed "to distinguish what part of the increase is due to the change in reporting policy and what you can attribute to a real uptick in crime."
The Times investigation found the LAPD misclassified nearly 1,200 violent crimes as minor offenses during a recent one-year period ending last September. Had the misclassified crimes been recorded correctly, the official figure for violent crime during that period would have been nearly 7% higher. Almost all the misclassified crimes were aggravated assaults, which would have been almost 14% higher during that time.
Following The Times' report, the Police Commission directed its civilian watchdog to conduct an audit of multiple years of crime data to evaluate the accuracy of crime reductions the agency has reported.
At a commission meeting Tuesday, Commissioner Paula Madison asked Beck to explain the rise in domestic violence.
The chief suggested more victims might be reporting abuse to the police than in past years, but he said understanding the causes behind domestic violence is "a very difficult question."
"I can give you a 'where' it's up. I can give you a 'how much' it's up," Beck told Madison. "We can speculate on why it's up.... What I'm trying to tell you is: As soon as we've discovered a 'why,' I'll be glad to let you know."
The Times this week requested statistics detailing the rise in domestic violence, but the LAPD said they were not immediately available.